In the news recently: the government is making moves to reuse old burial plots, to deal with the problem of overcrowded graveyards. People are, naturally, a bit shocked at the idea of disturbing one’s eternal rest, especially given the synchronicity between this news and the reburial of Gladys Hammond.
However – and I bet you could tell I was about to say this – the idea that the grave represents your eternal rest is a relatively new one, dating from the late 18th century. It’s in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that all the world’s great cemetaries were opened – Old Calton Hill in Edinburgh, designed around David Hume’s mausoleum; Highgate; Kensal Green; Père Lachaise; the Glasgow Necropolis. Prior to that, the grave was normally a temporary place of rest, unless you were an important person.* After noone around could remember you, up came your skeleton, to go into the local charnel house.** In The Name Of The Rose, set in the 14th century, a charnel house (of sorts) plays an important part in the plot.*** The most famous example, nowadays, is probably the ossuary near the Czech town of Kutná Hora.
All this seemed to change in the 18th and 19th centuries, when people started to think of the grave as the eternal resting place. Possibly this was connected with the rise of rationalism – people started to care a lot more about the treatment of the body after death, when previously they’d been confident that the treatment of the soul was more important. It led, in turn, to the modern funeral industry, described by Jessica Mitford in The American Way Of Death**** and Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One. The body has become the overriding focus of funeral rituals, and we forget that only a couple of hundred years ago, exhuming the skeleton and reusing the grave was the normal way of life and death.
* If you were important enough to be a saint, of course, bits of your body could end up all over the place.
** Somewhere I have a book of traditional English folk-tales, in which the parish charnel house often plays an important part – persuading someone to go inside at the dead of night, with someone in there already pretending to be a ghost, and that sort of thing.
*** Spoiler: it’s also a secret passageway (highlight to reveal).
**** Originally published in the 1960s, but with a sequel written in the 1990s.